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Farmers the key to national soil health

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After a decorated career in governance and the military, Major General Michael Jeffery – former Governor-General and now Australia’s National Advocate for Soil Health – is playing a leading role in shaping government policy when it comes to soil science and natural resource management. In his third report as Australia’s National Advocate for Soil Health, titled ‘Restore the Soil: Prosper the Nation’, General Jeffery focuses on the importance of soil to Australia’s farmers and food supply and declares that immediate action is needed to implement and encourage sustainable management practices in order to ensure agricultural productivity.

“The core message of the report is to have the government agree to a national policy to restore and maintain the health of the national agricultural landscape,” says General Jeffery. “We want to put systems in place where every farmer adapts to regenerative agricultural practices and really understands the integrated management of plants, soil and water, so that we rebuild or continue to build our soil health and resilience.” He explains that successful Aussie farmers must uphold a delicate balance of the three key aspects of agricultural management: soil, water and plant assets. “What we’re really talking about here is an integrated management system. If you mess up any one of the three, the other two will fail as well,” says General Jeffery. “To a degree, that’s what’s happening with some of our farmers who are not managing those assets adequately because they don’t know how, or haven’t been taught.”

“We’ve done a lot of work behind the scenes and I’ve spoken to roughly 6,000 farmers in the last three or four years about this. I think we have to use every channel of communication to get our message across, whether it’s to the public, the politicians, the farmers or to departmental agencies. All those avenues have got to be utilised to spread the word about the importance of soil health.” According to General Jeffery, one of the keys to maintaining soil health is the nurturing of microbe-rich soils that can adequately absorb water to sustain healthy plant growth. Australian soils, which previously had soil carbon levels of roughly three to four per cent (where one gram of soil carbon holds up to eight grams of water), are now experiencing soil carbon levels at one per cent or less. In 2012, Soils for Life published a series of case studies looking at the impact of sustainable and regenerative practices, with reports finding that 50 per cent of the rainfall on the Australian landscape is lost due to poor soil structure and insufficient groundcover. When asked whether this rate has improved since, General Jeffery points out that the drastic loss of soil carbon has not allowed any improvement in rainfall capture. “I think that while we do have very smart farmers and very good science, by and large we have been mining our soils rather than building them up,” he says. “We have been losing too much water to evaporation – about 50 per cent of our rainfall – when we want that rainfall actually filtrating into the soil. “And for the most part, it can’t get into the soil because of insufficient soil carbon. The soil is compacted, or it’s running off because it doesn’t have sufficient top cover and that then erodes the streams. The streams then flow below the floodplains and take a lot of topsoil out to sea.”

For General Jeffery, one of the keys to changing the prevailing mindset about Australian farms is for schools to invest more in agricultural education. He recommends that every primary and high school in the country set up a communal vegetable garden, supported by a mandated agricultural curriculum and properly trained agricultural teachers. “By the time every child reaches 16, he or she should have a good knowledge of how soil, water and plants function,” he says. “That way, we’ll also develop a much closer linkage with our farmers, and more kids will take up farming and agricultural science. “If we’re able to get every child onside for that, we will have a far better chance of reconnecting urban and rural Australia. People will become a lot healthier and it will reduce the cost of the health budget. Our farmers will be better supported, we will pay a fair price for food and we will get the landscape regenerated because everybody will know not only that it’s got to be done, but how it should be done.”

DID YOU KNOW
In Australian soils, organic carbon generally makes up less than eight per cent of total soil weight. Increasing the total organic carbon in soil can decrease carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and increases soil quality

 

Originally published by The Australian Farmer.


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